Infor ION-izes its Open SOA Strategy - Part 2

Part 1 of this blog series started by analyzing a certain change of the guard and a related product strategy shift at Infor. Two late June 2010 news announcements, which were entitled “Infor Simplifies Connectivity and Data Sharing with Infor ION(tm)” and “Infor Selects Microsoft as Preferred Technology and Tools Provider for Infor Software," were then demystified in an interactive and constructive dialogue with Soma Somasundaram, SVP of global product development (a recent internal promotion) and Massimo Capoccia, director of product management technology.

The article ended with stipulating the four major components of the newly minted Infor ION interoperability and business process management (BPM) framework. 

ION: Bridge to the Cloud?

The Infor ION framework is also the cornerstone of Infor’s hybrid cloud-to-on-premises software integration strategy. The collaboration business network part of ION will be enabling enterprises to conduct business transactions internally or externally, across both on-premises and cloud applications.

The idea is to provide out-of-the-box enablement for Infor cloud-based applications as well as a bridge to third-party cloud computing solutions. Rapid configuration of new cloud-based services will be achieved via Microsoft’s Active Directory Federation Services (AD FS) for single sign-on (SSO) services available anywhere.

The details are still sketchy at this stage, since Infor just announced its cloud strategy branded Infor24 Cloud Initiative at Microsoft’s Worlwide Partner Conference (WPC) on July 12. There was a press release announcing Infor24 and the selection of Microsoft Azure as Infor’s preferred cloud platform, but this topic is worthy of another briefing with Infor and a separate article.

Some May Still Beg to Differ

I can certainly see the rationale and pragmatism in Infor leveraging Microsoft’s stack to unify the end-user experience and simplify systems deployment and management, and Infor ION should ease interoperability across on-premises and cloud software applications. On the other hand, some folks might still see this strategy shift as “cut and run” instead of being mainly pragmatic with the end-user needs in mind (as can be seen by several comments to the posts by Frank Scavo and Ray Wang, mentioned in Part 1).

For one, some observers and practitioners still believe that Infor’s own tools were quite necessary to sell its product strategy. What Infor is doing now can be seen by some as the vendor admitting to not having the resources, will (perhaps even guts), and vision to deliver the original product strategy.

In addition, while the new Microsoft-based business intelligence (BI), reporting, and user interface (UI) tools may be as good or even better than Infor’s original ones (now to be done away with), the value of the maintenance contract might be lost to a degree. With this strategy, Infor will likely need to charge for the Microsoft software licenses, which might mean lower margins and thus fewer functional enhancements per solution.

If Infor cannot provide “meat and potatoes” enhancements across its product suites, how long will customers still pay for maintenance? Will customers have to upgrade to the latest product releases to benefit in full? More license fees might ironically slow the migration pace.

Without one or two go-forward “uber ERP” platforms, how can Infor afford to maintain a dozen enterprise resource planning (ERP) platforms in the long run? Namely, the once touted multiple ledger “evolve” application is no longer coming, but some other “evolve” applications are still in the pipeline, e.g., sales and operations planning (S&OP). Without the multi-ledger capability, can existing ERP systems easily be internationalized?

This Microsoft simplification/standardization sounds reasonable, but the broad set of solutions with different infrastructures might still make even Infor’s simplified endeavor difficult. Everyone can believe in the “we will maintain all databases and operating systems (OS)” pledge, but some “red-headed step-child” databases and OS will eventually start to suffer. If you add on the different languages and UI technologies, the number of supported infrastructures can balloon even within the Microsoft-centric products.

For instance, Infor Optiva PLM is mostly Microsoft-centric, but has a large set of Oracle database users that are now facing porting from .NET UI to Silverlight. Since most of the users are still on the Visual Basic (VB) 6 environment and need a large number of missing features to be ported from even older product releases, does Infor now close the feature gaps or port to Silverlight?

On the other hand, Infor Demand Planning (former Mercia) only runs on Oracle and is about 80 percent based on stored procedures (i.e., locked in Oracle’s data dictionary). If one tried to create a matrix of possible old to new technologies migrations, this could be a scary list.

I frankly saw Infor’s statement about being “uniquely aligned with Microsoft across target markets, customers, technologies, applications, and channels” as a stretch. Infor might be a mid-market provider, but it also has some of the largest corporations as customers, e.g., Coca-Cola or InBev breweries. Microsoft SQL Server is not necessarily the preferred enterprise-class database.

Until recently, IBM was Infor’s key marketing partner, and that company views Microsoft as the archenemy. If Infor’s IBM System i/DB2-based products are in a different research and development (R&D) group with different development and sales teams, are they aligned with this ION strategy?

Infor must be careful not to upset all of the IBM-based customers, who might then migrate to SAP, Oracle, or IFS. This would reduce a big portion of Infor’s coveted and needed maintenance revenue stream. All along IBM-centric customers have been asking how Infor Open SOA will affect them. This strategy shift might put the final nail in the coffin.

The bottom-line: for a small set of Infor ERP products, this strategy might work, which is  a rationalization of a sort. Even if you add a small list of extended solutions to a selected ERP set, this becomes more challenging. Is ION a solution for a vast majority of Infor ERP solutions and most of the company maintenance base? Can Infor generate enough top line growth and protect the install base?

In its defense, Infor claims to have ION-enabled all of its major ERP products – this includes but not limited to System 21, BPCS, XA, A Plus, SXe, Syteline, Baan IV, LN, Adage, and Visual. Not only are the latest releases of these products enabled but also older versions, where there is a sizable customer base, have been enabled.

What this enablement provides for the wider customer base is the delivery of Workflows, Business Event Monitors, and Reporting. Reporting is delivered via the common data store populated by ION-delivered business documents. Reporting includes role-based dashboards delivered via web parts in SharePoint and page-based reports via Microsoft Reporting Services.

In addition, Infor PM Analytics with pre built multi-dimensional cubes, delivered via SQL Analysis Services and rendered using Silverlight controls in SharePoint, are available to the wider customer base for purchase, as these source business data from the common store. While new Infor UI delivered inside SharePoint requires the latest releases of major products, ION-enabled functionality delivered leveraging Microsoft Portal and reporting stack is available to a much broader audience.

Still, since each Infor ERP solution siphons off one to several developers, some quality assurance (QA) & testing, some support, etc., about 40 percent or more of Infor’s product development (in some insiders’ estimates) is not available to compete with SAP or Oracle. Since these “reviled Big ERP” guys have much larger teams and wherewithal, the Infor numbers might not stack up.

To simplify the situation, divesting the IBM-centric ERP assets might provide some short-term relief for both Infor’s balance sheet and stretched R&D department. This might especially be true if Infor still plans on an initial public offering (IPO) any time soon.

Infor Explains ION Further

Rather than to continue to think loudly and play the devil's advocate, I decided to give Infor ample chance to further explain and clarify our discussion from Part 1, in writing and at its staff’s leisure. What follows are my prodding questions and Infor’s official answers:
PJ: What were the reasons for ION taking over from Infor Open SOA.  What additional capabilities did it provide?  Was Infor struggling to deliver OpenSOA so took the cheaper and easier option by adopting the Microsoft technology stack?

Infor: Just to recap, the Infor Open SOA strategy had the following three major goals:

  1. Deliver new functional components leveraging advanced technology

  2. Deliver a set of common services to make current applications work together with the new components. As an example, interoperability, event management (EM), workflow, common BI store, reporting, and universal access (Infor MyDay)

  3. Deliver a toolset / development environment to build both the new functional components and common services

Open SOA was instrumental in the successful first phase of Infor’s interoperability strategy, acting as the architectural foundation for application data sharing and integration. Phase one is now drawing to a close, as Open SOA is now included in 25 of the most widely adopted Infor applications.  Infor ION is phase two of the strategy, introducing new software services that simplify the configuration and management of data sharing, business processes and reporting.
From the strategy perspective, Infor continues to believe in the need to deliver new functionality and add innovation to current applications for new and existing customers. Infor also recognizes the need for a common ground, i.e. a common set of services to make Infor, partner, and non-Infor applications work together.

However, we have made a conscious decision not to build all of them but leverage more out-of-the-box services and toolsets from Microsoft. Infor’s focus is building applications and not toolsets/development environments per se.  This relationship allows Infor to focus its resources on the areas that differentiate us and bring benefits to our customers.  

It enables Infor to bring new applications to market quicker, and provides solutions that are easier to deploy and use, particularly for midmarket customers. In particular it releases a large developer community to focus on providing world class applications for our customers and, as you pointed out before, allows us to compete even more effectively with SAP and Oracle.

PJ: This would be the Nth technology iteration since 2005. Namely, I remember Corestone (whatever on earth that was), then came Infor Open SOA relying on the Progress Sonic enterprise service bus (ESB) at first, then the move to platform independence by building a peer-to-peer (P2P) network of open fortresses, on-ramps, etc. Why should we believe that Infor ION will now be the end all?

Infor: Although Infor has changed the names of the initiatives over the years, all of them are continuation/evolution of the previous one. As an example, Infor ION is 80 percent relying on all services that we have built in Infor Open SOA.

The remaining 20 percent is actually new and leverages the latest insights of the software industry, such as building a simplified and business-oriented configuration of interoperability, event management, etc. using Microsoft Silverlight technologies. This includes all feedback from customers using Infor Open SOA during all limited availability projects.

PJ: How is this strategy related to the “Three E (Enrich, Extend, Evolve)” strategy, i.e., complementary, replacing it, or something else? What happens to all of these already developed Evolve components and on-ramps, especially if they are not in the Microsoft technology (e.g., MyDay, BIS, etc.)?

Infor: From a strategy perspective Infor will continue to add new functionalities and innovations to its portfolio. With Infor ION and Microsoft technologies, Infor will further accelerate the evolution and adoption of new type of business applications, such as cloud applications that will run in combination with existing on-premise solutions. Infor’s MyDay, Business Information Services (BIS), etc. are going to be migrated to the Microsoft stack leveraging SharePoint, SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS), and SQL Server 2008 R2.

PJ: The same as above for the Infor Flex program, in terms of licensing. Especially, what about (additional) licenses for SharePoint, SQL Server, etc.?

Infor: Flex remains one of the most important pillars of Infor’s product strategy. We are seeing considerable momentum, involving customers moving on to new versions of their applications.

If a customer applies to a Flex exchange, most of the time, these customers have already Microsoft’s stack deployed and ready to be reused. If not, Infor offers an attractive low-entry point.

PJ: So customers are moving to the new versions of Infor products?  How about Infor’s new technology direction?  How has that been accepted?

Infor: The success of the InforFlex program really shows how our new products and technology are being accepted by our customers. InforFlex is a customer-centric program designed to respond to customers’ requests for help to get to the latest Infor products and technology. They like where we are taking them – they simply want a fast, risk-reduced, and transparent approach. That is what the program offers.

We’ve had phenomenal, global success with the program across dozens of our products and its momentum is accelerating. To see over 500 customers make such substantial decisions to either upgrade or change products in such a short period of time is a strong testament to the pent-up demand we’ve tapped into. Our customers are risk-averse. Upgrades and Exchanges are risky. They see the value in taking on the cost and risk.

The fact that they are making these investments in a tough economic climate is a real endorsement of Infor’s technology direction, and the business benefits they see from moving to the newer product sets. The Microsoft aspect of our technology strategy makes it easier for customers to make decisions and move.

They are familiar with Microsoft technology. They have already invested in Microsoft technology. Microsoft is as common in our customer base as oxygen. Certainly there may be some incremental cost for incremental software and incremental capabilities …but that is fair, and very transparent to the customers where it applies – and no customer is complaining.

PJ: Leveraging Microsoft's stack is a no-brainer (and simplification) for Infor ERP SyteLine, Visual, and even some Progress OpenEgde-based products (given that OpenEdge works well with Microsoft on the UI-level). However, what about the IBM Server i and Unix-based products, and that partner ecosystem?

Infor: For all of the solutions that are platform independent such as Infor ERP LN, customer relationship management (CRM), warehouse management system (WMS), etc. it means that they will continue to be platform independent. These applications are able to co-exist in the Infor ION environment.  ION is written in Java and can be deployed on UNIX/iSeries platforms. The initial release of ION will support various platforms including Microsoft Windows and Linux/UNIX systems.
However, leveraging the Microsoft relationship, Infor is able to deliver an attractive packaging for these applications with Windows/SQL Server, with strong pricing, professional services organization (PSO) knowledge center, performance and benchmarking reports, native installers, priority certification, etc. This will benefit a high proportion of our midmarket customers who already run Microsoft technologies.

If a customer/prospect still wants to run, for example, Unix/Oracle, that will remain supported. For reporting and BI, though, Infor has selected Microsoft as standard tooling. This will bring out-of the box portal, BI, reporting, and Microsoft Office integration capabilities.

PJ: Just looking at customers using products running on Unix and i-Series outside the Microsoft technology stack (for example Infor Demand Planning), what will this strategy mean to them?

Infor: Products that run on non-Microsoft stack in their core will continue to operate in those environments. However as described above, ION-enabled solutions get all of the benefits offered under Microsoft's reporting capabilties, including Dashboards, Tasks, Alerts, Workflows, Event Monitoring, Standard reports, Analytics. In most cases, Infor also offers other products with functional equivalency that leverage Microsoft technologies in their core offering that customers can move to, taking advantage of Infor Flex program.

PJ: And related to that, what activity is Infor currently seeing in the iSeries market?

Infor: The iSeries base is very important to Infor, with around 15,000 customers worldwide. There is a lot of activity around development for this installed base. A significant focus is tuning up the ERP LX  and ERP XA  suites so they can run on the IBM System i 7.1 operating system, which fully exploits the IBM Power7 machines. 

Infor’s developers are working on aligning its applications with IBM's move from the 64-bit native Java Virtual Machine (JVM) to the new AIX JVM that has replaced it. Infor has joined IBM's i 7.1 beta program in another sign of the close relationship it has with IBM.  Both Infor ERP XA and Infor ERP LX were made ready for i 7.1 by the end of July.

Infor developers are working on other iSeries-specific applications including a workflow tool that will run across its various System i-based ERP suites and a new purchase order management module that will link into ERP LX, ERP XA, and System 21 suites. In the works is also a drop-and-drag Visual Planner tool for doing plan-to-order management in an easier way than most AS/400 and System i shops are used to.  It will provide a more interactive planning tool for customers, helping them move away from batch mode planning of their manufacturing schedules.

Infor is also committed to widening the range of applications available to our iSeries customers.  It will now resell Cashbook's IBM i Banking Software as Electronic Banking for System i, a new application designed to automate a company's inbound and output payments, as well as provide bank statement reconciliation with a customer's books. In terms of the external market, we continue to sell iSeries-based products to new customers.

PJ: Is ION some "lighter" Open SOA, something new from scratch on the Microsoft stack, something in-between, etc.?

Infor: ION is lighter in the sense that it has become more configurable from a deployment perspective, but less complicated to set it up and maintain. Since it is based on the Open SOA technology, ION is platform-independent. The ION Desk, the Silverlight-based modeling and configuration environment is new (see Part 1).

ION is not something new from scratch using Microsoft technologies, as our integrated technology stack will include Infor ION, Infor BI and Analysis Services,  as well as Sharepoint, Silverlight, and MS Reporting Services.  Main platforms are Windows Server and SQL Server but customers are able to use other platforms if preferred.  Infor will continue to be an open systems company offering customers choice.

PJ: How does this new Microsoft relationship affect Infor’s existing relationship with IBM?

Infor: While we believe the Microsoft relationship will provide great value to our customer base, it is not an exclusive arrangement.  We will continue to work with other technology and tools providers as directed by the needs of our customers.  We are committed to maximizing the value of all of our technology and tools provider relationships

PJ: There is a lot of synergy between the Microsoft and Infor customer bases in the midmarket, but how will this agreement affect Infor’s enterprise customers who often run Infor applications on non-Microsoft platforms?

Infor: Again, customers who run Infor products on non-Microsoft platforms can continue to operate on those platforms, as Infor will continue to enhance all major product lines. In addition, these customers can take advantage of extended functionality delivered via ION, Microsoft Portal, and reporting stack.

The majority of large customers run Microsoft-based applications in their environment already and they have expressed the desire to deploy these extended functionalities. On top of this, customers can take advantage of applications offered in Infor24  - since applications on Infor24 run outside the customers’ four walls, underlying technologies become less of an issue as security, connectivity, scalability, unification of user experience and of course functionality are more important.

PJ: So ION is a strategy which applies to the whole Infor installed base?

Infor: Yes, ION is a strategy which builds on the investments Infor has already made in SOA-enabling its applications and developing a cost effective technology infrastructure.  It brings the benefits of modern applications and technology to all of Infor’s installed base.

PJ: What about a cloud strategy within ION? Namely I know that Infor EAM, Expense Management, and SyteLine ERP are already software as a service (SaaS), but is there any more wide-ranging on-demand strategy in place?

Infor: ION is the interoperability and BPM suite of services that will bring the world of on-premise and cloud together using the same solution. Customers implementing ION today and exploring the cloud opportunity have with ION the right solution to grow and adopt cloud services.

Dear readers, what are your views, comments, opinions, etc. about Infor ION and the company’s revised product strategy? Is Infor ION a thought leadership or a “me too” strategy? Also, what do you think about how Infor will fare against its formidable competitors in light of its strategy and recent moves?

Do you think that Infor ION’s “great taste but less filling” approach of a sort will create less or more overhead for you then “Big ERP” does? If you are existing Infor customers, do you now have more of fewer reasons to stay with the vendor?
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